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Phil Mickelson stumbling into Northern Trust Open

Mickelson has struggled in his first three tournaments of the year. But the defending champion at Riviera hopes to pick his game up at the Northern Trust Open.

February 17, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

PEBBLE BEACH — Like Charo, Madonna or Nelly, he remains just "Phil" to golf's audiences, except lately he just hasn't been, you know, Phil.

"Phil, sign my baby," blurted a woman near the 18th tee on Poppy Hills last Friday, and Phil guffawed and turned and noticed the baby dangling off her and smiled and said, "Congratulations."

Then Phil -- that's Mickelson, to be technical about it -- repeatedly would go from such scenes of ambassadorship, from handing golf balls to tykes between holes, to donning his familiar look of contained agony during them, as on No. 3 Friday when he went inexplicably from mid-fairway to mid-bunker and began shaking his head and studying the ground.

Although Mickelson retains a popular personality, golf clubs have sadistic personalities, and Mickelson's have spent the nascent part of 2009 taking turns being mean to him.

It may or may not represent significance in the career of the 38-year-old who returns to Riviera this week as defending champion.

Mickelson -- a guy so good he can call a two-win year such as 2008 "not what I hoped the year would be" -- has spent his first three events of 2009 missing the cut, finishing tied for 42nd and finishing tied for 55th.

"I'm making some big mistakes score-wise," he said in the kind of golf language indecipherable to mortals.

Oddly, this comes after he chirpily turned up in Phoenix only 20 days ago, bolting from off-season sessions with gurus and putting exercises with eye-training devices.

"It seems like it's coming," he had said.

Then the stretch of three tournaments -- the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz.; the Buick Invitational in La Jolla and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on the Monterey Peninsula -- began.

At TPC Scottsdale No. 1 at the FBR Open, where he has been beloved since his college days, Mickelson yanked a dismal tee shot, made double bogey, played amateur botanist in visiting the various species of cacti on Nos. 11 and 13, made as many double bogeys as birdies (two each), hit two of 14 fairways and shot 76.

"Well, it really wasn't what I was hoping for," he said.

Then, giddy with a gaudy new driver at the Buick Invitational, he shot a hopeful 70 in the first round but faded, struggling tee to green and shooting a third-round 73 that negated any chance of contention, meaning he didn't really have to suffer his four-putt on No. 6 in the final round.

"Not what I was hoping for," he said.

Next was Pebble Beach, where he finally skipped up the board a bit on Saturday, reaching three under par through No. 8. Then he hooked a five-iron on the par-three No. 12, and when the sea gull-shoving wind got hold of that, it wound up dancing on a cart path before finding a resting spot several yards out of bounds.

He re-teed and made triple bogey.

"I was thinking, gosh, I was thinking 63 or 4, trying to get back in the tournament and not that far after that, I was just trying to make the cut," he said.

He did make the cut by one stroke when he birdied No. 18 via a museum piece of a Phil shot, a five-iron from 208 yards that helped itself to a view of the beach before it curled onto the green and obeyed at 10 feet from the cup.

Then before making off to sign hordes of autographs, he surveyed three inexplicable weeks of errant drivers, errant irons and an errant putter and said, "My only good area is chipping."

In that art, he has had much practice, and to follow him around for parts of three days is to witness the world's most sublime chipping -- from bunkers, from rough, from slopes. He ranks 182nd in driving accuracy, 126th in putts per round and 145th in greens-in-regulation, his game leaking here and then there and then back to here.

Indeed, he chipped adequately from the fringe Saturday during his par on Pebble Beach's No. 16, but that followed his approach from 107 yards, which went way left and left the gallery murmuring to itself.

"Jeez, Phil," said one.



Riviera at a glance


Where: Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades.

When: Thursday-Sunday.

Purse: $6.3 million.

Course: 6,987 yards.

On the air: TV: CBS. Radio: XM Channel 146.

2008 champion: Phil Mickelson.

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